Doing something out of desire rather than need is always the better way. That’s the happy situation for the Sundance Film Festival as this annual showcase of independent cinema reinvents itself for its 2023 edition.
Running Jan. 19-29 in Park City, Utah, the festival will for the first time be a hybrid affair, with screenings both in-person and online. For the past two years, due to the pandemic, the fest was forced to move online only.
Shaking off the COVID blues, Sundance is returning to its hometown next to the Wasatch Mountains, welcoming movie lovers back to picturesque Main Street and to such familiar local theatres as the cavernous Eccles, the Art Deco Egyptian and the barnlike Library.
But the fest also wants to hold onto the big online audiences it attracted in ’21 and ’22. You can bet that festivals everywhere, Toronto’s TIFF among them, will be watching to see if the combo works.
“Our online festival has been such a success that it is hard to let go of it,” Sundance senior programmer Heidi Zwicker said via email.
“It has not only expanded the access public audiences have to the festival, it has also provided new access to international industry members who could never make the trip to Utah. We know it is not possible for everyone to attend Sundance who wants to attend, and our online component has helped solve that problem.”
Sundance is hedging its bets by staggering start dates: the in-person version of the fest begins Thursday but public online screenings won’t commence until Jan. 24, with both formats ending on Jan. 29.
Online screenings are limited to U.S. viewers only, but international viewers, Canadians included, can get some of the Sundance spirit by watching online its popular “Beyond Film” discussion panels during the second week of the fest. One panel sure to attract attention, with participants that include rising star Jonathan Majors, is titled, “Going Nowhere? On Burnout and Attention Crisis.” (There’s no charge for the online panels but you need to register for a free account at festival.sundance.org.)
Even as it tinkers with the format for its 39th edition, Sundance is still promising to offer the best in independent cinema. It will screen 110 features and 64 shorts selected from thousands of submissions worldwide. The features are diverse: 56 per cent of them are directed by women and 49 per cent by people of colour.
It will be hard to top last year’s success: family comedy “CODA” and music documentary “Summer of Soul” premiered at Park City and went on to win Best Picture and Best Documentary Feature respectively at the Academy Awards.
High on the list of buzzed-about films at Sundance 2023 are two literary adaptations: Susanna Fogel’s “Cat Person” and William Oldroyd’s “Eileen,” both screening in the multiplex-friendly Premieres section of the fest.
“Cat Person” is based on one of the most-read and most controversial short stories of the 21st century: Kristen Roupenian’s 2017 tale of the same name in the New Yorker, based in part on a true story, which exploded in print and online just as the #MeToo sex abuse reckoning was getting underway. College student Margot (“CODA” star Emilia Jones) meets the considerably older Robert (Nicholas Braun, TV’s “Succession”) and thinks it’s a great match until reality harshly intrudes.
“Eileen,” a psychological thriller set in the wintry New England of 1964 and based on Ottessa Moshfegh’s award-winning novel, stars Anne Hathaway as a new employee of a prison who bonds with a younger co-worker, a secretary played by Thomasin McKenzie. Hathaway’s character has a secret; the movie by “Lady Macbeth” director William Oldroyd has sinister things to reveal.
Finding the dark truth of a place also animates “Infinity Pool,” a horror film by Toronto’s Brandon Cronenberg (“Antiviral,” “Possessor”) that’s set in an exclusive island resort in an unnamed Eastern European country. Starring Alexander Skarsgard, Mia Goth and Cleopatra Coleman, it’s a cautionary tale about wealth trumping morality that suggests it would make a great triple bill with such recent A-list attacks as “Triangle of Sadness” and “The Menu.”
Screening in Sundance’s Midnight section, where such horror classics as “The Blair Witch Project,” “Saw” and “Hereditary” were launched, “Infinity Pool” heads straight to theatres after its Sundance debut, opening Jan. 27.
It’s a strong year for Canada at Sundance. Besides “Infinity Pool,” there are four other long-form productions having their world premieres in Park City: Ido Mizrahy’s “The Longest Goodbye,” a documentary about a NASA scientist studying the risk of social isolation in Mars-bound astronauts; Lin Alluna’s “Twice Colonized,” a doc about Inuk lawyer and activist Aaju Peter as she searches for the truth about her son’s violent death; Jacqueline Castel’s Midnight program chiller “My Animal,” a secret-laden love story between a goalie and a figure skater in a northern town; and Xavier Dolan’s “The Night Logan Woke Up,” a TV mystery series set in 1991 in a Quebec town that sounds a lot like Twin Peaks, screening in the Indie Episodic Program.
Other hot Sundance 2023 picks include Roger Ross Williams’ “Cassandro,” a fact-based drama starring Gael García Bernal as a flamboyant Mexican wrestler known as “the Liberace of lucha libre”; Alice Englert’s wicked comedy “Bad Behaviour,” in which former child model Jennifer Connelly (“Top Gun: Maverick”) plays an out-of-control former child actor, wrecking the weekend retreat led by her guru (Ben Whishaw, “Women Talking”); and Elijah Bynum’s “Magazine Dreams,” the story of an amateur bodybuilder who goes to extremes, featuring actors from two recent Sundance breakouts, Jonathan Majors (“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”) and Taylour Paige (“Zola”).
Sundance is also known for its wealth of documentaries about famous and infamous people. This year’s bounty includes Lana Wilson’s “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields,” Thom Zimny’s and Oren Moverman’s “Willie Nelson & Family”; Lisa Cortés’ “Little Richard: I Am Everything”; Davis Guggenheim’s “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie”; and Anton Corbijn’s “Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis),” a doc about the mad artists behind the covers of many classic rock albums, including Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.”
The subjects of Sundance docs usually show up at the premieres, another reason for movie lovers to brave the snow and slush of Park City and to attend the fest in person. Imagine bumping into Brooke Shields, Willie Nelson and the ghost of the late Little Richard on Main Street.
SUNDANCE SENIOR PROGRAMMER HEIDI ZWICKER OFFERS THREE FEST BETS:
• “Polite Society” (Nida Manzoor): “This is playing the Midnight section but don’t assume that it is a dark, horrific watch. I think it’s your best bet for a high-energy, uproariously funny movie at the festival this year. It follows a teenager’s martial arts-infused quest to prevent her older sister’s upcoming nuptials.”
• “Past Lives” (Celine Song): “This is an exciting feature film directorial debut from playwright Celine Song. It is an achingly beautiful drama that follows two childhood friends from Seoul who reunite as adults in New York City.”
• “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields” (Lana Wilson): “I am a big fan of documentary filmmaker Lana Wilson, and she continues to impress with her new film. This one explores Brooke Shields’ life in front of the camera, and dives deep into the sexualization of her as a child in pop culture and how she processes that today as a mother of two daughters.
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